Russia plunged China into a difficult situation when its forces arrived in Ukraine in February, weeks after the two nations reaffirmed their “boundless” friendship. On the world stage, Beijing has avoided openly supporting or condemning the invasion.
But on heavily censored Chinese social media platforms, pro-invasion sentiments appear to be running high, with many posts and comments encouraging Russian President Vladimir Putin and condemning the West. Over the past two months, a rapidly growing online translation campaign has sprung up to make this content more visible to non-Chinese – much to the chagrin of the Chinese government, which experts say often has different messages. for domestic and foreign audiences.
Since the creation of his Twitter account at the beginning of March, the great translation movement gained over 135,000 subscribers and now receives hundreds of translations a day, submitted via direct messages.
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In written responses to NBC News via direct messages on Twitter, account moderators said they operate from countries around the world, but most of them have lived in China and are fluent in Chinese. The moderators – who said they didn’t even know each other’s identity or exact location – spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears of fines, detention or jail time for them themselves or their family members in Mainland China.
“Our goal is to raise awareness of the state of public opinion in China,” they wrote. “Whether it’s purely the result of spontaneous interactions by the Chinese people or the result of government censorship, manipulation and propaganda, we want the outside world to know what’s going on inside.”
Chinese state media has called the project a smear campaign and points out that online discourse in the West is also loaded with extremist views. Critics also say the tone of some of the Twitter account’s posts could stir up hostility towards Chinese and other Asians around the world.
In a statement, Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said “the information conveyed by the so-called great translation movement is biased and does not really reflect the whole picture.”
Moderators said they try to be as representative as possible in translating content that has a lot of likes or comes from state media or influencers with millions of subscribers. The content comes mainly from Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, as well as the WeChat messaging app, Quora-like Zhihu and Douyin, the Chinese version of the TikTok short video app. To ensure the veracity of submissions, moderators say they ask for links to original posts and archive them in case the content gets deleted online.
Most of the content is translated into English, but the account also has articles in Japanese, German, Korean, French, Spanish, and Arabic. He also started publishing about the Covid-19 lockdowns in Shanghai and other parts of China.
Pro-Ukraine posts and hashtags appear to have been taken down on Chinese platforms, and Chinese state media has amplified disinformation and conspiracy theories in favor of Russia.
Jason Wu, an assistant professor of political science at Indiana University who specializes in Chinese ideology and public opinion, said that while extreme posts can prove popular on social media, the Chinese network Internet control can also allow those with certain opinions to speak out more than others. It is therefore risky to equate high engagement with genuine public opinion, he said.
The Chinese government has presented itself as neutral in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, expressing concern about the humanitarian situation and calling for a peaceful solution without explicitly condemning Russia’s actions. But pro-Ukrainian posts and hashtags appear to have been taken down on Chinese platforms, and Chinese state media has amplified disinformation and conspiracy theories in favor of Russia.
A volunteer translator wrote in an interview in Chinese that the ruling Communist Party uses external propaganda to “glorify itself” and internal propaganda to “brainwash the masses.”
“The Chinese Communist Party has supported Russia, both explicitly and implicitly, in this war in Ukraine,” said the volunteer, a Chinese citizen who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of arrest. “The propaganda of public opinion leads to the conclusion that Russia is fair and has no choice but to [invade]. As a result of this propaganda, many Chinese do not understand the situation and support Russia. »
That includes many Chinese living overseas, said former Chinese diplomat Han Yang, who has lived in Australia since he was first posted there in 1998. Many members of Australia’s Chinese community, a he says, rely heavily on Chinese state media for news and consume little or nothing. News in English.
The Chinese government has also spent billions on state media operations aimed at foreign audiences who speak English and other languages. But because internet users inside mainland China’s ‘Great Firewall’ are cut off from most of the biggest foreign internet platforms – including Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube – it’s hard for information to flow. in the other direction.
“It’s a very asymmetrical information war being played by the Chinese side,” Yang said. “As you can see on Twitter, all of these Chinese state media outlets have hundreds of official accounts spreading their propaganda to the West every day, but we can’t get our message across to the 1.4 billion Chinese living in China.”
He began tweeting his own translations of Chinese posts and comments, many of which have since been retweeted by the Great Translation Movement, after seeing an overwhelming amount of “pro-Russian and pro-Chinese propaganda” in a WeChat group. for the Chinese diaspora in Australia.
“You don’t see official propaganda in English because they are very honest, talking about Chinese national interests, not about the good and bad of the invasion,” Yang said. “I think we should do more to put this in English so the world can better understand China’s position.”
While he shares the goals of the translation campaign, he said he disagrees with some of the members’ sentiments. A moderator of the Twitter account was quoted in a Chinese-language article by Deutsche Welle as saying they hoped to expose the “cruel” and “bloodthirsty” nature of the Chinese people. Yang said comments like these paint all Chinese people with a broad brush and give ammunition to Chinese state media condemning the movement.
Wu said the reaction from state media most likely stemmed from Beijing’s fear of losing control of its messaging. The Chinese government has long presented different content to domestic and foreign audiences, he said, and the translation campaign is essentially creating a public relations crisis by violating those boundaries.
“People who don’t normally read Chinese have an idea of exactly how state media is trying to win over national public opinion, and that makes it harder for the party to say, ‘Well, we we’re really neutral,'” Wu said. “And it’s kind of unrealistic for them if they believe they can have that one message for the domestic audience and not be heard by the rest of the world.”